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Athwart

Five years ago today National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. passed away at home, at his desk, while working. NR commemorates his death with a symposium on WFB, an interview with Alvin Felzenberg, and a personal recollection by St. Paul native Larry Perelman.

Buckley’s NR editorial colleague Jeffrey Hart opened my eyes to the claims of the great tradition while I had the great good fortune of being his student for four years at Dartmouth. Teaching eighteenth-century English literature, Professor Hart disabused me of my addled adolescent liberalism.

Professor Hart joined the editorial board of National Review in 1969. In the course of his long association with the magazine he met up with virtually all of the magazine’s great characters. Hart’s 2006 history cum memoir — The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times — restores them to life. Professor Hart brings his gift for portraiture to bear on Buckley. Here is Hart’s account of his first glimpse of Buckley:

Not long before the first issue of National Review appeared, I had a chance to see William Buckley, already famous for God and Man at Yale (1951), in action. A debate had been announced, to take place in Harvard’’s Lamont Library, between Buckley and James Wechsler, the diamond-pure liberal editor of The New York Post. Later Buckley would aptly write that Wechsler was so pure a liberal that he ought to be on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, for tourists and schoolchildren to gawk at, as they did at Piltdown Man. He or someone else said that Wechsler was like a bronze bust of The Liberal that one might strike matches upon.

What happened on the appointed night in an auditorium at Lamont Library gave a preliminary indication of at least one of the many qualities that would render Buckley famous and National Review successful: Buckley’’s bravura. The auditorium was jammed, his entrance buzzily awaited. Then down the aisle he proceeded with his wife Pat, she very tall, wearing an enormous leopard hat and large bag, also leopard. Buzz from the audience. At the podium, after thanking the host for his introduction, Buckley observed, with an elfin grin (soon a signature feature), that he was very pleased to see Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., there in the audience. Then he added, “his many books would be dangerous if they weren’’t so boring.” In his bow tie, Arthur looked Arthurish. Laughter. Not hostile. And the Harvard students loved it. Buckley’’s entire performance was Byronic, rakish, and marvelous. His intonations were unique, though today familiar. They seemed something gorgeous, maybe out of the English fin de siècle, Beerbohm, Beardsley.

Whatever sober points Wechsler might have made, he was obliterated by the stylistic contrast and, ink-stained wretch that he obviously was, slunk back to the then-liberal New York Post. Right there, I saw the conservative movement being born, and liberalism made otiose. Right there was the esprit that caught the attention of early National Review readers, —especially the young.

This was no stuffed-shirt or classroom policy wonk. This had nothing to do with the dismal science and its green eye-shades. This was great theater.

When I posted this excerpt on Power Line, Buckley emailed us this reservation: “I am a little embarrassed by the quote attributed to me on Arthur Schlesinger. He is NOT a boring writer!! He is other things. I don’t remember saying that, but pehaps I did.”

Professor Hart invited me to join Buckley and a few other teachers and their wives for dinner when Buckley came to Dartmouth to speak in the spring of 1972. Professor Hart contemplated that I would report on the dinner for the Daily Dartmouth, where I was a staff writer.

Buckley had returned from China with Nixon and Kissinger only a few weeks before. National Review had already published Buckley’s long, critical account of Nixon’s trip and the opening to China. In high style Buckley expressed eloquent indignation at the sight of Nixon clinking snifters with a mass murderer.

Nevertheless, Buckley seemed exhilarated by the trip. He raved about the Chinese food. He expressed concern about the fate of Taiwan and talked about Nixon’s concern over the conservative reaction to the trip. He confided in us off the record that Teddy Kennedy had declined to run against Nixon that year because he viewed Nixon as unbeatable. I asked him about his lament (in a column collected in one of his books) for the bygone age of bipartisan foreign policy, the tradition reflected in the expression that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Where did I write that?, he asked me. I told him and experienced a little exhilaration of my own.

In his speech to a large student crowd, Buckley talked brilliantly about the China trip. I had just read his National Review article about it and observed how artfully he incorporated pieces of it into his speech. Following the speech he fielded student questions posed from a microphone placed on the floor in front of the stage. One of my classmates, visibly drunk, approached the microphone unsteadily to ask Buckley a killer question.

“Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley, Mr. Buckley,” he said as he warmed to his theme. “Do you really think the American involvement in Vietnam is right, or do you recognize that it’s an imperialistic war where we’re pursuing our own interests at the expense of the Vietnamese people with no justification except the higher interests of American business and its friends in the Nixon administration,” and so on, at length.

“The former,” Buckley responded. That’s one moment that has stuck with me for a long time.

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